Observing Elections from Space


3 min read

On Saturday, satellites will be collecting high-resolution imagery while millions of Afghan citizens will go to the polls to select their next president. The Independent Election Commission (IEC) and observer groups have undertaken extensive efforts to ensure that this election reflects the will of the people. We have been experimenting with using satellite imagery as another tool to catch certain types of voter fraud.

When over 7 million Afghan voters went to the polls on April 5th, satellites captured images of even the most rural polling stations. We collected satellite imagery from election day of locations with polling stations. Here is imagery of two remote polling stations in Maiwand District at 11:09 AM on the April 5 election.

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When blatant ballot box stuffing occurs it often happens in rural areas that are farther from oversight and have a surplus of ballots. A polling station that processes that maximum number of voters would have a steady flow of voters through the day. Examining imagery of that polling location a few hours after polls open could help to distinguish between polling stations with a high number of voters and those with stuffed ballot boxes. With higher resolution imagery now available, we can get an extremely accurate count of people waiting in line and others in the vicinity.

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Abdul Kareem Private House in Maiwand at 11:09 am on April 5 (Election Day)

At Abdul Kareem’s Private House tents have been set up in the middle of the courtyard to serve as the polling station. There are no long lines and few people in the vicinity at 11:09 am. The polling center returned 85 total votes, which is entirely consistent with this image. If it had returned 600 votes we might have been concerned.

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Band Taimoor Clinic in Maiwand at 11:09 am on April 5 (Election Day)

The imagery of Band Taimoor clinic shows a similar story and suggests that a polling center may not have ever opened. The Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC) rejected the results at Band Taimoor Clinic. On June 14 Band Taimoor Clinic will be used again. The IEC is planning to have three polling stations with 1800 ballots.

To be clear, satellite imagery will not catch most types of election fraud. A professional, independent election commission, trained election observers, and active professional and citizen media are critically important to a good election. Satellite imagery offers one more tool that provides a view into the most hard to reach and insecure places.

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